Jim Cairns: the tragedy of looking to parliament for fundamental change
- Written by Mick Armstrong
On the day of his election to parliament on 23 December 1956, Jim Cairns declared:
The purpose of Labor is not to make Governments, but to make better social conditions… I believe Labor will long be prepared to remain in opposition rather than give up its policy by identifying with the parties of big business and other conservative organisations.
For almost two decades Jim Cairns, who went on to become deputy leader of the ALP in 1974, was widely regarded as the chief theorist and spokesperson for the Labor left. He was the leading voice in parliament arguing for socialism, for workers’ control of industry and for advancing the class struggle.
Compare that to today’s Labor politicians who have no vision of a new social order, or even of delivering a few basic reforms for their working class supporters. They are at the beck and call of the rich and powerful.
Yet for all
Precisely because Cairns was not a cynical timeserver like those who lead the ALP today, he ultimately came to recognise the way he and the whole Labor government had been co-opted and used by the real power in society – the capitalist class and their media establishment – and resigned from parliament in 1977, thoroughly demoralised. This is a very important political lesson, because although most people today who consider themselves even vaguely left wing are pretty cynical about the current Labor government, they still by and large cling to the idea that fundamental change can come through parliament, be it via the Greens or some revitalised, more left wing ALP. The idea that parliament can be used for progressive ends is still entrenched. Indeed it is still the dominant idea on the left, and remains a major barrier to rebuilding a fighting left that can genuinely advance working class interests.
Jim Cairns – a proud, committed and determined socialist, who had played an active role in supporting working class struggles and had led an inspiring mass movement on the streets, who was a million miles to the left of Bob Brown or Adam Bandt or anyone else in today’s parliament – was unable to achieve anything through parliament; in fact was broken by it and used against his own working class supporters. So the idea that the Greens or the Labor left or a few Independent MPs are going to seriously advance the interests of workers via parliament is an absolute joke.
Who was Jim
Immediately after the war, while tutoring in economic history at
But in those days, if you were a socialist and wanted to be politically active and you rejected the Stalinist CPA, there were not too many alternatives on offer other than the ALP.
…the Labor party has adopted a policy of day to day objectives strictly within the capitalist status quo. In other words, the Labor party is the “left wing” capitalist party and is not a socialist party at all.
Yet in that very same year he ended up joining the ALP. But that did not lessen his activism in the university staff association, the campus Labour Club, the Australian Council for Civil Liberties and around a whole series of political causes, whether it was the struggle for Indonesian independence or the campaign to oppose the Menzies government’s attempt to ban the Communist Party. By the early 1950s, as a member of the Toorak ALP branch, he had increasingly been drawn into the factional struggle within the party against the right wing industrial groupers who had gained control of the Victorian ALP executive. The struggle against the right wing, predominantly Catholic groupers culminated in a bitter split and the formation of the right wing Democratic Labor Party (DLP) – a split which traumatised the labour movement for the next two decades.
In 1956, after the DLP split,
Once in parliament,
Most Labor leaders these days would not be seen dead backing striking workers or standing on picket lines. On the odd occasion they do show up at a workers’ rally it is mere tokenism. But for Jim Cairns, offering solidarity, raising funds and speaking out publicly in support of workers on strike against the boss was simply a basic political responsibility, even if it led to him facing a wave of red-baiting from the media, the Liberals and the right wing of the ALP. Significantly, but unsurprisingly,
Dr Jim Cairns, who had become a tower of strength for our cause, spoke at length about the issues of the dispute. He…grasped the main themes so thoroughly he was able to take much of the weight of explaining off my shoulders.
Jim Cairns was hostile to economic individualism, jingoistic patriotism and social authority. A convinced atheist,
By the late 1960s
It has been said that if people are to be allowed to get away with demonstrating for political purposes, more and more of them will set out to do so. This, say some, will destroy democracy. According to them democracy exists when everything is left to members of parliament. This view does not carry much weight…if the people choose to do nothing to show their will, they will find that parliament will soon do little more than give effect to its own will or to the will of the few people privileged to be able to influence it.
The high point of his activism came with his leading role in the Moratorium campaign against the war, most notably with the massive first nationwide Moratorium marches on 8 May 1970. Organised on the basis of shutting down business as usual in all the major cities of
Cairns played a vital role in holding the movement together in the face of the wrath of the powers that be. And the fact that he and the Victorian ALP leadership strongly backed the Moratorium campaign – unlike in NSW where the right wing-controlled ALP branch was hostile – was an important factor in explaining why the 100,000 strong Melbourne march was so much bigger than in other cities.
But if Cairns was demonised by the right, he also had his detractors on the left, particularly amongst the Maoists who were the largest force on Melbourne’s vibrant student left. As one of
There were plenty of valid criticisms to be made of
Yet on the other hand he played a largely positive role in the anti-war movement.
Cairns’ absolute commitment to non-violent protest was mistaken. Demonstrators and strikers must be prepared to defend themselves from attempts by the police, the employers or the far right to drive them off the streets or close down their meetings. To do otherwise is to effectively surrender the right to strike and the right to assembly. And on a number of occasions militant, confrontationist actions by a determined minority of protesters or striking workers have played a decisive role in driving the movement forward. But
At the end of 1972, just after Labor was elected, Cairns wrote in his book The Quiet Revolution:
…social democrats decided that it was the State, or the Government, that really had power, and that all you needed to do was to win an election and you would have control of the place where power really was located and you could then fully exercise power… But power is not located mainly or wholly in parliament. In an industrialised capitalist system power is located in the productive system – in factories, banks, stores, offices, newspapers, TV networks, universities, schools… Parliament is only one of the many places where power is located. In an economically advanced society any government is circumscribed, conditioned, neutralised and often dominated, by some or many of these more basic power centres… In a very significant sense Labor cannot gain power at all simply by winning an election. A Labor government can operate its administration within the limits imposed by the basic power centres of which the social structure consists.
Yes, I’m all in favour of revolution, a quiet, gentle revolution in people’s values. This would bring about a new society, away from the acquisitive, competitive nature of today’s society to one based on unselfishness and co-operation. That kind of cultural change is the only one that can be significant.
Making his peace with Whitlam
However, in government after December 1972, Cairns came to the view that Labor would not be able to deliver radical change and that he would have to be content with going along with whatever changes the powers that be would allow. Consequently he lowered his sights and went along with Whitlam’s social democratic approach. Indeed he described Whitlam – the right winger whom he had challenged for party leadership in 1968 and only been defeated by the narrow margin of 38 votes to 32 – as “the best Labor leader under whom I have served.” Whitlam was determined to move Labor away from any commitment to pro-working class egalitarianism to a meritocratic approach where supposed “equality of opportunity” – greater incentives to compete with the better-off for the most privileged positions – replaced redistribution of income from rich to poor. The Whitlam government refused to implement a wealth tax or increase income taxes on the rich, and instead increased indirect taxes which disproportionately targeted workers. The supposed reforms that Whitlam did introduce – health insurance, superannuation, increased education spending – were to be paid for by the workers themselves, rather than from company taxes or progressive income taxes.
Cairns offered no serious resistance to Whitlam’s “technocratic Laborism”, and after the ALP was re-elected in May 1974, he stood for the deputy leadership position and won comfortably. As Minister for Overseas Trade and Secondary Industry he sought a constructive relationship with big business and was highly praised by one of the leading employer associations, the Chamber of Manufactures. He encouraged Australian capitalists to establish their own multinational companies and engage in the profitable export of capital to South-East Asia. He opposed a ban on trade with apartheid South
Until I became a minister I had never met many of the captains of industry. You know, they are very intelligent.
The Labor government was thrown into utter disarray by the onset of the world economic crisis in 1974. The traditional Keynesian economic approach that had been looked to by both the left and right of the party proved totally incapable of stemming the sharp rise in unemployment. The business establishment was hysterical about the decline in profits from 15 per cent to 9 per cent of GDP by the end of 1974. The government came under tremendous pressure, both from business and from the reinvigorated Liberal opposition, now headed by arch right winger Malcolm Fraser, to abandon any more reformist measures and to slash government spending so as to make workers pay for the crisis. But workers did not take this lying down. In the face of skyrocketing inflation, workers in industry after industry launched strike after strike to defend their living standards; 1974 was to see the highest level of strike action in Australia since the tumultuous year of 1919.
Cairns faltered under the pressure. He joined in the chorus of criticism of the unions for supposedly engaging in excessive wage demands, and opposed granting a 35-hour week to public servants, which had been promised in Labor’s policy speech for the 1974 elections.
I don’t want anyone to be out of work. It’s not the government that will be putting anyone out of work, it’s the system…
At the February 1975 ALP national conference at Terrigal, Labor made a major ideological shift to the right – a formal commitment to the profitability of private capital.
I am a socialist in that I believe in co-operation and equality and I deplore avarice and aggressiveness. I know that the capitalist system is exploitive and leaves many desires of many people unfulfilled. I also know that ours is a capitalist economy. I know that the jobs of most of our people depend on private industry – most of it part of the multi-national system. It’s time for the ALP to say quite clearly and categorically that our socialist objective does not prevent recognition that the basic needs of the Australian people are dependent at this stage of our development on a profitable private sector.
For a self-declared socialist this was a fast track to hell.
Despite this move to the right, Cairns still drew the line at the draconian austerity measures demanded by Treasury officials, the Liberals and sections of the ALP leadership around Whitlam. He forced through a budget that boosted government expenditure. In his budget outline proposals to Cabinet he wrote:
1. We must never fail to re-employ people who can be re-employed productively merely because it would add to the deficit. 2. We must not consent to surrender any significant part of our programs…as the result of pressure from the media and other anti-Labor forces. It is better to be defeated while attempting to implement Labor policies than to be defeated after surrendering them.
Cairns wished to avoid the worst consequences of the crisis and the shift to anti-worker neoliberal policies. Yet in the face of the failure of Keynesian policies he was disarmed, with no alternative strategy to offer. His continuing reliance on a parliamentarist strategy meant that he refused to mobilise workers outside parliament to fight the ruling class offensive and demand the nationalisation under workers’ control of failing industries to save jobs. Instead he, and the rest of the Labor left, were par
But the capitalists were still not satisfied. In alliance with the media barons and the heads of the public service bureaucracy they conspired to bring the Labor government down. Labor was tossed aside like a squeezed lemon when the unelected Governor-General, the arch reactionary Sir John Kerr, who had been appointed by Gough Whitlam, staged a coup that brought Fraser to power on 11 November 1975. In a time of crisis the bourgeoisie preferred the sure hands of the open party of big business over a Labor government that, for all its betrayals, was still looked to by the mass of class-conscious workers. The ruling class responded euphorically to the announcement of the sacking of the Labor government. Share traders burst into thunderous cheering on the floor of the Melbourne Stock Exchange and share prices surged. But an angry working class responded with a series of insurgent mass strikes and militant protest marches. Indeed, immediately after news of the coup came out at 2.05pm on 11 November, tens of thousands of workers walked off the job and rallied in all the major cities. In Melbourne they marched on Liberal Party headquarters and stoned the building’s windows. Furnishing trades workers refused to replace the broken glass. In Sydney the following day workers showed what they thought of the stockbrokers by storming the Stock Exchange.
The ruling class was clearly worried by the prospect of a general strike, outbreaks of violence and a deep class polarisation. Rupert Murdoch’s Australian commented in an editorial on 13 November that the demonstrations of the previous day were “ominous” and raised “the very real danger that people might seek to express their opinions violently rather than democratically through the ballot box”. Former Liberal leader Billy Snedden later wrote that he believed “the peace of the country was threatened and there could have been insurrection. No doubt about that…” The army was put on grey alert. On Thursday 13 November demonstrators marched on Murdoch’s newspaper office in
However the ALP leaders, Cairns included, and the union leaders, from both the left and the right, refused to offer a fighting lead. They feared a mass movement that clearly had the potential to develop into a direct challenge to the rule of capital. As Bob Hawke, then head of the ACTU, put it:
A lot of people will want to move for a general strike, but I’m asking them not to. I’m aware that what has happened could unleash forces in
Australiawhich we have never seen before.
The ALP leaders had served their purpose for big business. They had demoralised and betrayed their supporters and consequently were slaughtered at the polls. In the immediate aftermath of the defeat, a bitter Jim Cairns blamed the bourgeoisie and its media. No government could survive if it displeased them, he said:
This is a capitalist society. The capitalist class is the ruling class and their ideas are ruling ideas. It is all tied up with money.
But as Tom O’Lincoln commented, “Cairns offered no strategy for coping with this capitalist juggernaut except to say Labor should become ‘more humane, idealistic, altruistic and democratic’. How that could overcome the power of money, he did not explain.” Subsequently in his book Oil In Troubled Waters, Cairns wrote insightfully about the downfall of the Whitlam government:
The victory of the Liberal-Country parties was not a victory of an alternative to Labor; it was a victory of the prevailing hegemony made more certain by Labor’s acknowledgement and acceptance of so much of it. We were not replaced by an alternative; we were assimilated by the “true” representatives of what we had finally so much admitted was “true”.
He went on to argue:
…if a good society is to be established – free, egalitarian, and self-regulated – then control of the means of production would have to be changed. It would have to be transferred from the few who exercised it to many more – to the people.
This objective has always been called socialism. It is futile and demoralising to deny it, as we have often done. The denial has been a product of our retreat from radical objectives…”
He ended by endorsing the argument of the left wing British Labour leader Aneurin Bevan:
Audacity is the mood that should prevail among Socialists as they apply the full armament of democratic values to the problems of the times.
But these valid insights came way too late.
In the aftermath of the Kerr Coup, Cairns abandoned parliament and took flight into utopianism. He got involved in the alternative lifestyle movement, helping to organise the Down to Earth festivals. But by the early 1980s he had cut his ties with the counter-culture. It had proved just as much a dead end as reliance on parliament for change. In the late 1980s Cairns drifted back to a more political approach and reaffirmed his commitment to socialism. And even though he rejoined the ALP, he remained critical of it from the left. The tragedy was that he had never been won to a genuine Marxist approach that looked to mobilise workers outside parliament to fight to bring down capitalism, and consequently his considerable talents and popularity were not used to build a fighting revolutionary alternative to Labor’s repeated betrayals.
 Robert Murray, The Split. Australian Labor in the fifties, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1984, p.280.
 Paul Strangio, Keeper of the Faith. A biography of Jim Cairns, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South 2002, p.53.
 Strangio, Keeper of the Faith, p.53.
 Janet McCalman, Struggletown. Public and private life in Richmond 1900-1965, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1985, p.239.
 Paul Ormonde, A Foolish Passionate
 Pat Mackie, Mount Isa. The story of a dispute, Hudson Publishing, Hawthorn, 1989, p.170.
 Ormonde, A Foolish Passionate Man, p.1.
 The Age, 4 May 1970.
 Strangio, Keeper of the Faith, p.173.
 Jim Cairns, The Quiet Revolution, Widescope, Camberwell, 1975, pp.118-119.
 The Sun,
 Ormonde, A Foolish Passionate Man, pp.143-144.
 For a Marxist an
 Robert Catley & Bruce McFarlane, From Tweedledum to Tweedledee. The new Labor government in Australia. A critique of its social model, Australia and New Zealand Book Company, Sydney, 1974, pp.5 and 66.
 Michael Sexton, Illusions of power. The fate of a reform government, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1979, p.45.
 Ormonde, A Foolish Passionate Man, p.159.
 Ormonde, A Foolish Passionate Man, p.181.
 Ormonde, A Foolish Passionate Man, p.200.
 O’Lincoln, “The Rise and Fall of Gough Whitlam”, p.137.
 The Canberra Coup, Workers News, March 1976, p.21.
 The Canberra Coup, p.40.
 Griffiths, Strike Fraser Out!, p.12.
 Griffiths, Strike Fraser Out!, p.10.
 The Age,
 O’Lincoln, “The Rise and Fall of Gough Whitlam”, pp.150-151.
 Jim Cairns, Oil In Troubled Waters, Widescope, Camberwell, 1976, p126.
 Cairns, Oil In Troubled Waters, pp.156-158.
 Aneurin Bevan, In Place of Fear, Heinemann, London, 1952, p.33.